Is the non-identity problem relevant to public health and policy? An online survey

Keyur Doolabh, Lucius Caviola, Julian Savulescu, Michael J. Selgelid, Dominic Wilkinson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


Background: The non-identity problem arises when our actions in the present could change which people will exist in the future, for better or worse. Is it morally better to improve the lives of specific future people, as compared to changing which people exist for the better? Affecting the timing of fetuses being conceived is one case where present actions change the identity of future people. This is relevant to questions of public health policy, as exemplified in some responses to the Zika epidemic. There is philosophical disagreement about the relevance of non-identity: some hold that non-identity is not relevant, while others think that the only morally relevant actions are those that affect specific people. Given this disagreement, we investigated the intuitions about the moral relevance of non-identity within an educated sample of the public, because there was previously little empirical data on the public's views on the non-identity problem. Methods: We performed an online survey with a sample of the educated general public. The survey assessed participants' preferences between person-affecting and impersonal interventions for Zika, and their views on other non-identity thought experiments, once the non-identity problem had been explained. It aimed to directly measure the importance of non-identity in participants' moral decision-making. Results: We collected 763 valid responses from the survey. Half of the participants (50%) had a graduate degree, 47% had studied philosophy at a university level, and 20% had read about the non-identity problem before. Most participants favoured person-affecting interventions for Zika over impersonal ones, but the majority claimed that non-identity did not influence their decision (66% of those preferring person-affecting interventions, 95% of those preferring impersonal ones). In one non-identity thought experiment participants were divided, but in another they primarily answered that impersonally reducing the quality of life of future people would be wrong, harmful and blameworthy, even though no specific individuals would be worse off. Conclusions: Non-identity appeared to play a minor role in participants' moral decision-making. Moreover, participants seem to either misunderstand the non-identity problem, or hold non-counterfactual views of harm that do not define harm as making someone worse off than they would have been otherwise.

Original languageEnglish
Article number46
Number of pages17
JournalBMC Medical Ethics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 5 Jul 2019


  • Ethics
  • Harm
  • Impersonal
  • Non-identity problem
  • Person-affecting
  • Survey
  • Zika

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